My ex-husband has always been a big guy, and I liked him for it. But after we watched the episode of The Simpsons in which Homer gets so fat he decides to live in a muumuu, I turned to him and said (half) jokingly: “If you ever start living in a muumuu, I’m leaving you.” Famous last words: he ended up leaving me, and this morning I woke up so depressed that the only thing that felt right against my body was a muumuu.
The muumuu: a sheet with a hole cut in the middle for a neckline; the stigmatic outfit for the fleshy; the ensemble of someone who wants to lose the outlines of his/ her body within a batik-printed or tie-dyed piece of flowing Indian cotton. This desire to erase/ blur the body’s contact with the atmosphere has become metaphorical of a certain self-hatred (in turn associated with fat people): I feel so shitty that I can’t bear being a recognizable human to the world outside my home.
This is certainly what led me to forgo dressing at all this morning. The cause of my depressing self hatred: the summer has ended, and the journals and publishers that held my work hostage over the last few months got back to me with their rejections. (One academic journal which shall go unnamed actually sent two rejection slips for the one essay I submitted. It’s like, OK I get it; You don’t like me!!) I was so sickened by my sense of failure last night but since I no longer drink seriously there was no Johnnie Walker to caress me. And then, no strong arm to surround me in solace, either. I couldn’t sleep the pain off. So after the shower, on came the muumuu.
But then a curious thing happened: I put my head over the glorified tent, and I felt better. As I walked about my apartment, the muumuu flapped around me like wings of a butterfly. My hair, still damp but sprayed up, felt bigger and fuller: I was not going to leave my house today but I knew I was going to have a good hair day. The muumuu, as shapeless as it is, is not just a dress of depression and self-hatred. Or rather, it is only so for those who see it as a symbol, not a process. The great jazz singer Sarah Vaughan, in her mature years, lost the svelte figure of her youth and with her weight gain, began wearing muumuus—as her stage costume.
(This is actually a snap of a page from my diary at age 20—a xerox of a photo of Sarah Vaughan with Betty Carter. Note Vaughan sticking out her tongue in mischievous joy!!)
When I was a teenager, I saw a PBS documentary in which the muumuu-clad Vaughan talked about how physically draining it was for her to perform: “I’d come on stage looking like Lena Horne and go off looking like Sarah Vaughan.” I love this quote, and it stuck to my brain because one, it speaks to the intense labor that is feminine performance. But secondly, it is a wonderfully complex self-affirmation of a woman whose body and femininity, due to age and weight gain, no longer passed the litmus test of traditional feminine perfection. The rhetoric of Vaughan’s self-observation depends on the binarism of “Lena Horne” and “Sarah Vaughan”: “Lena Horne” is light-skinned, skinny, eel-chic slick; “Sarah Vaughan” is darker-skinned, fat, a blubbery sweaty mess. But Vaughan’s self-deprecation is at once a self-glorification, because it’s not as if she gains weight in the course of her time onstage, when she goes from “Lena Horne” to “Sarah Vaughan.” In other words: the muumuu-clad, fat Sarah Vaughan is in her own mind as chic as “Lena Horne.”
Vaughan’s health trouble in her later years (especially due to her weight) is well-known. What I love though is that she didn’t simply say, “I’m fat and I love being fat,” as many of today’s self-help guru’d people would declare. Instead, Vaughan had to deal with the reality of her body’s pressure upon her physical and emotional well-being, and she processed through it honestly, subtly, elegantly. She put on the muumuu and something about the way its fabric swung around her made her happy, and allowed her to belt out “Send in the Clowns” for the trillionth time.
I like to think this is what will happen to me today, as I type these words, the ceiling fan wafting my own muumuu up softly around me. As I go through the day, I’ll hug myself with these words of the poet Sandra Lim: “Girls/ For the lowing of whales/ has conjured them up given them savage details”....